The blue feathers seemingly possessed an internal light. Their intensity dazzled, demanding attention. The bird was facing away from me, looking back over his royal blue wing that captured the brilliant sunshine of a perfect spring day.
Birders typically enjoy their pastime at dawn and dusk, when birds are generally more active. The early afternoon can be an especially slow time, particularly when winds are still. Yet here I was one midafternoon, binoculars in hand, being charmed by the eastern bluebird (Sialia sialis).
The bird sat atop a nesting box. A rolling green carpet of low marsh plants stretched out between my spot on the boardwalk trail and the bird box. A dozen yards beyond lay a mixed deciduous forest, still coming into leaf, providing a palette of browns, yellows and forest greens as a backdrop. The colors were commanding and the clarity of detail striking.
One of the advantages of midday birding can be the magnificent light. It felt like I had just gotten a new pair of glasses, with everything suddenly in sharper focus. As every elementary school science student knows, colors are merely the combination of reflected and absorbed wavelengths of the visual spectrum of light. The physics of the experience were lost on me at the moment, though. I was simply bedazzled by that blue.
The male eastern bluebird is a smallish thrush. He’s almost totally royal blue when viewed from the back. As the bird captured an insect, his full range of colors was on display. A rich chestnut stretches from his chin and the side of his neck down to the breast and flanks. A bright white belly reaches back to under the tail (“undertail coverts”). His black eye is set in that royal blue head, straight back from his rather strong bill.
Females follow a similar color pattern, but substitute a paler blue-gray for the royal blue and a softer tawny hue for the rufous tones of the male.
It was no accident that I saw the bluebird on a nesting box. For centuries, bluebirds have nested in the hollows of trees, formed from natural decay or the excavations of woodpeckers. That’s a vastly diminished habitat today, as “damaged” trees are quickly removed from managed forests, orchards and suburban wood lots. In addition, bluebirds have nesting competition from nonnative starlings and house sparrows.
Eastern bluebirds are part of the familiar story of dramatic declines in populations that accompanied the loss of essential habitat during much of the last century. In recent years, though, that decline has been arrested by the widespread deployment of bluebird nesting boxes. One sees them on farm fence posts, poles along the edges of suburban office parks and in refuges like the Wildwood Lake Sanctuary on Harrisburg’s northern border, where I was standing on that warm spring afternoon.
Eastern bluebirds, like almost all thrushes, have a lovely song. Unlike the clear, fluting notes of many of their brethren, the bluebird’s song is a soft, mellow warble. The birds also have a dry, chattering call.
Females do most of the nest building, with some assistance from the males. Bluebirds typically hatch two broods each year, with both parents sharing the feeding chores. It takes the chicks less than three weeks to fledge. In a year, they are ready to breed themselves.
These birds have a distinctive feeding pattern in which they drop off a perch and fly a short distance, land and quickly capture an unwary insect. These sallies are not random. Possessed with keen vision, eastern bluebirds can see bugs on the ground from 100 feet away. The birds also catch insects on the wing. During the fall and winter, they will add fruit and seeds to their diets.
During the summer, some birds will move into the lower tier of Canada, and will head south in the fall. Bluebirds migrate as far as Mexico, although there is a huge overlap of migrating and resident populations throughout the southeastern United States. Standing in the nature preserve along Wildwood Lake, I was near the northern limits of the eastern bluebirds’ year-round range.
The Wildwood Lake Sanctuary is an unlikely oasis. The elongated preserve is bordered by U.S. Route 22 and the aptly named Industrial Road. The park’s southern edge is Interstate 81. In many parts of the park, traffic noise is constant, and warehouses loom behind many of the scenic vistas.
I was in an unlikely place at a less than opportune time, but none of that mattered. I had perfect light, the renewing warmth of a spring day and a charming bluebird to enchant me.
My experience with the eastern bluebird reminded me that we don’t need perfect timing and painstaking planning. We just need moments of opportunity and a willingness to capture the light that reflects all around us.